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Baran-Unland: When church scandal tests faith

Pope Francis gestures as he answers a journalist's question Sunday during a news conference aboard of the flight to Rome at the end of his two-day visit to Ireland.
Pope Francis gestures as he answers a journalist's question Sunday during a news conference aboard of the flight to Rome at the end of his two-day visit to Ireland.

Reading news stories about Vatican cover-ups and hundreds of priests who abused children in six Pennsylvania dioceses for more than 70 years is, for me and for many, horrifying.

The faith of some, I’m certain, is bound to be shaken. For others, their belief that organized religion is corrupt or of little value may even be strengthened.

At the very least, such stories can make us question, perhaps re-examine, our beliefs. Periodically reassessing one’s spiritual life is not a bad idea. Many of us do the same with our finances, careers and relationships.

Here are some of my reflections this past week.

For me, my faith in God and my relationship with Him is my greatest treasure. I cannot think of time when I wasn’t aware of His presence, and that “awareness” extends back to toddler-hood.

When everything else in life fluctuates, God is a reassuring constant. My relationship with Him, and how I express it, has nothing to do with denomination or the behavior of church leaders.

But, for me, it has everything to do with prayer, meditation, reflection, standards, and how I apply those in my daily life, and how and why I choose to do this or that.

Even when duties clamor, “Me! Me! Me!” from all directions, and I’m not sure which one to address first, I silently ask God, “Should I answer email or edit that story? Do I clean up the kitchen or lift weights?”

It may sound silly. I don’t mean to be trite.

But when I listen for that answer and act on it (instead of doing what seems right to me), everything falls into place, and everything that needs addressing eventually gets addressed.

Ultimately, my faith is summed up in three words: “God is love.”

And because God is love, my relationship with Him is teaching me how to love, in little ways and big ways. I have a long way to go, of course. But I’m farther down the right road because of God.

Even faith has its seasons. As I taught faith to my children, my own infantile faith grew. When I ran a Sunday school and youth group in a small church for a handful of youth of varied ages, I grew with them.

I learned to think creatively as I strove to take intangible concepts and make them tangible for children. Art, science and cooking projects all worked nicely here. For instance, one recurring event the Sunday school students (preschoolers through teens) all enjoyed was our icon of the month coloring contests (with a real icon randomly given as a prize).

We had Sunday school students host coffee hours with foods they prepared based on Biblical lessons. We played Bible hangman, Three Holy Hierarchs “Mother May I?” and hosted Bible Jeopardy games in teams with the rest of the church as audience.

We emptied the art cabinet and spent hours recreating St. John of the Ladder’s “Ladder of Perfection” icon on large, three-sided posters and then displayed them, anonymously, so parishioners could vote for their favorite. The winner, of course, received an icon.

My kids still have theirs.

We held all-night prayer vigils for church growth. Meaning once a year, all the church kids (and their friends) stayed all night at the church. We played games, and they brought their electronics, and we did art projects.

Every hour on the hour until dawn, we gathered for five minutes of prayer. A handful always made it. And once, one of the teens even woke me up to join her.

But one must make time for children to create, which gets messy; they need time to ponder and question. One must have patience for all of it. But I suppose the same is true for any service to which one is called. Just ask my friend who is both Christian and a neurosurgeon.

I’m still in church Sunday, not because God needs me there because He doesn’t NEED anything from me. I’m there because I need it. Because my relationship with God is stronger when I can spend that minimum of 90 minutes each week in a sacred space, listening to sacred words and sacred music.

If couples ought to plan “date nights,” I, too, ought to plan a “date morning” to nurture the most important relationship in my life. Yes, I know I can pray anytime and anywhere (and I do), but that’s like saying couples don’t need to date because they can text anytime and anywhere.

Even in our social media age, there’s still something to be said about getting dressed up and taking your best self to a dedicated place because you value a relationship.

So yes, the recent news reports are horrifying. But they don’t weaken my faith. The only person out there that can weaken my faith is me.

However, the reports do remind me to pray for church leaders and anyone in leadership positions. For me, it’s easier to pray more often and consistently for the people I love than for those I don’t know or who are remote from my life.

Even when we can’t directly remedy a terrible situation, we can pray for those who can – and should.

• Denise M. Baran-Unland is the features editor of The Herald-News. You can email her at

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